The University of Utah Hospital’s main lobby is a study in chaos – with foot traffic of visitors, patients and staff in colorful scrubs, main elevator doors chiming as they open, and congested caffeine seekers around the Starbucks.
Those who walk a little further, if they pay attention, will notice a Steinway piano. For two hours on Monday mornings and Thursday afternoons, this is where Edward “Ed” Lueders can be found – usually dressed in a red volunteer polo shirt, blue jeans and white trainers – doing some music that provides a sense of welcome calm amidst the cacophony.
He plays with an ease that comes from a lifetime — 99 years — of love for jazz. His feet are soft – one on a pedal, the other tapping rhythmically on the floor. He thoughtfully slides his fingers over the keys. He squats delicately on the keyboard, creating a tender air.
Lueders is many things. He is the author of 14 books. A retired English teacher. A veteran of World War II. A recording artist.
He is also legally blind and wears double glasses.
For this reason, Lueders does not use partitions. He keeps a list with him during his volunteer shifts, with the titles of over 500 jazz standards and show tunes from the 1920s to the 1950s – classics such as “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, “Singin’ in the Rain”. and “Stardust”.
He memorized each of them, he says, and he doesn’t find that fact remarkable.
“I don’t memorize them, they’re just there,” Lueders said. “His [how] you know people’s names or what they look like. You take things that are repetitive in some way and repeat them from memory.
He compares it to concert pianists who have memorized several concertos. “They’re playing from memory and people don’t think it’s extraordinary,” he said. “The memory factor is natural for me.”
Lueders called himself “macular degenerate”, referring to the eye disorder – common to people over 50 – which affects and reduces central vision.
It’s a good thing, Lueders said, that he can’t see the sheet music because he prefers to play without it. “I couldn’t play if I had to read the music,” he said.
Lueders lives at Friendship Manor, a retirement community located at 500 South and 1300 East, and takes public transportation to the hospital. He cannot read or write, because of his blindness, so he has electronic equipment that reads to him.
With the exception of two sons in their 60s, Lueders survived his family. His daughter, Julie – who was well known in the Utah music scene as a drummer for numerous bands – died in 2004, aged 47.
“I never feel more like myself than when I’m identified as Julie’s father,” Lueders said.
It was through Julie that Lueders met James Anderson, the recording engineer behind the four albums Lueders has released – most recently, “Ed Lueders @ 99”, recorded on the Steinway in the hospital lobby.
Lueders has been listening to music since a young age. There was always a piano in the house when he grew up in Chicago, he said. He also knows how to play the saxophone and the metal clarinet.
“My mom taught me three chords,” he said. “She said I used to ‘plink’ the keys. Kids usually pound [them] make noise, but [I] plinka them to see how they sounded.
He said he has been “having fun” ever since and learned by playing and listening to his favorite jazz age pianists, like Teddy Wilson of the Benny Goodman Trio and George Shearing, who was also blind.
Lueders said he put his love for music to work when he was drafted into the military during World War II. He served in the US Army Air Corps Airlift Command, transporting supplies to Allied bases in China, Burma and India. He was a sergeant in the Special Services Division, which entertained and provided recreation for the troops.
“We had orders to go to any base that had ATC personnel and entertain them, check morale and see that they knew what they were fighting for,” he said. “We were artists in uniform.”
In his 2008 novel “The Wake of the General Bliss”, Lueders’ three main characters are a trio of jazz musicians, entertaining troupes sent home at the end of the war. The story is fictional, but Lueders was part of such a trio during his service.
Lueders, who is also professor emeritus of English at the University of Utah, said of her many talents, “I have many ways of being myself.”
“Not play, but provide music”
Lueders said his favorite song to play off his list is “From Time to Time” because it’s a song he struggles to play, as he tries to find harmonies that stand out. When he plays, he says, every song is his song.
When he plays in the hospital lobby as a volunteer, Lueders said, he plays what he calls “hospital jazz” – a cheeky equivalent of elevator music or, as he put it , “jazz improvisation at a slow or medium tempo”.
“It is suitable for people on the move and it is [in the] context for them,” he said. “Never too hard or too fast.”
Part of his joy of playing in the hospital, he said, is that he’s not playing for the money.
“Here I can perform for a general audience, not perform, but provide music,” he said. “I understand here, in particular, how the music is an element without which it would be a more severe atmosphere.”
When it’s time to play, the Lueders fan club also shows up, like clockwork. Staff and patients stop to listen to him play. Some plan their breaks and trips just so they can see and hear it.
Many of the people who stop by, Lueders said, comment on the music — saying their fathers, and more recently their grandfathers, like the songs he plays.
“Better yet, it’s people coming in to talk about it, and I sit and don’t play for a while and have a meaningful conversation with them about it,” he said.
He played down the idea that he is a celebrity to those who listen to him or to the staff who manage the hospital’s volunteers. “It’s just a matter of sticking around long enough to do something worthwhile,” he said.
Lueders makes new friends at the hospital and meets old ones. Some are colleagues and students from his 24 years as a professor in the U’s English department – teaching American literature and creative writing.
That day, two former students, Laurie Bray and Beckie Bradshaw, came to see Lueders. (They were alerted that a Tribune reporter would write about him.)
They took him to a class, “The River in American Life.” It was “a good exercise in critical thinking,” Bray said. It brought together students from all majors, to study history, architecture and literature. And, of course, Lueders brought music here and there.
Knowing that Lueders was going to be interviewed, Bradshaw said, the hairs on his arms stood on end. “I have incredible memories of him as a teacher and of our adventures,” she said. “He had his expectations but he was easy going and loving.”
At 99, Lueders continues to make an impact on those around him. When people leave the hospital, his music is often the last thing they hear and it leaves them smiling.
Of all the things he did in his varied and fortunate life, Lueders said, “it is playing the piano here, in these circumstances, that is the cornerstone of a long life and a career.”
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